MARVELING AT KITCHEN CRAFTSPERSONS

Painted in Waterlogue

Even after nearly five decades of work in and around kitchens and kitchen staff – I continue to be impressed by the skills and the passion of the craftspeople who come to work each day and execute a set of skills that take years to develop. Working in a kitchen involves skill, mastering of a craft, and a unique confidence that comes from many years of practicing those skills until the process is fluid, natural, and accomplished with an ease of movement that is relaxing and intoxicating to watch.

Those who work in kitchens become jaded and so accustomed to the display of these skills that they pay little attention to them, but a chef always has a moment now and then to stop and admire anyone who has become one with their daily routine.

Take a moment to consider, and whenever possible stop and admire some of the following:

[]         THE FISH BUTCHER

Fillet knives that are sharp enough to cut through the flesh of a round or flatfish like butter leaving nothing behind but the bones and fins; hands that understand the anatomy of the fish and how to maneuver the tip of the knife around a dorsal fin, the seamless effort that allows the fish butcher to extract the cheek from a cod fish for that highly sought after special on the evening menu and the precision by which this craftsperson cuts a tuna or salmon into perfect seven-ounce fillets or steaks only to spot check the dead-on accuracy of his or her knife work on a scale – this is the poetic motion of a expert fish butcher.

[]         THE MEAT BUTCHER

A meat butcher is skilled at the level of a surgeon – knowing the location and grain of each primal and sub-primal muscle; knives just as sharp as those used by the fish butcher but held differently to work around bones and cartilage. A seasoned butcher works effortlessly through the chuck, loin, sirloin, round, ribs, flank, and brisket making sure to respect every ounce of meat, never slice into a muscle that defines a specific retail cut, and preserving ancillary products for stock. This is a dangerous job, but one that demonstrates a total focus on and understanding of the animal and its uses in the kitchen.

[]         THE BREAD BAKER

Working with a living, growing, and sometimes unpredictable product like bread requires much more than the ability to follow a formula with delineated amounts of flour, salt, water and yeast. The bread baker speaks and learns with his or her hands. The feel of flour will send a message to the baker’s brain that helps to adjust a formula for the amount of water and the timing of mix. The touch of a finger during bowl or bench proof will signal when it is truly time to punch down the dough and shape it into loves. Knowing the oven and all of its hot spots and drafts will be critical during the bake. Understanding when to introduce steam to develop the right surface crust and tapping the bottom of the bread to listen for the sound that signals this bread is done requires that the baker be totally in tune with the product and process. The bread baker becomes one with the product. The bread baker doesn’t work with bread – he or she becomes connected.

[]         THE CAKE DECORATOR

Those who have held a pastry bag, taken a deep breath, and tried to no avail to pipe perfect rosettes, intricate borders, or God forbid – write on top of a cake, know just how difficult it is to execute a perfect cake and receive those “wow” responses from a guest. A steady hand is one essential part, but it is also the eye, the patience, the agility, and the artistic talent that combine with the steady hand to make a cake decorator someone to admire. When you package all of this with the speed and confidence that a seasoned decorator demonstrates then you have a real craftsperson that can be admired and respected.

[]         THE OYSTER SHUCKER

Sure, I can open an oyster – that is if you have the time to wait. The professional who can insert the knife in just the right location, pop open the shell, reveal the sweet meat of the bivalve inside, scoop out the muscle and never lose a drop of the briny liquor inside is a person to truly respect. Hundreds of times in a shift this craftsperson performs this task with the same ease of walking or breathing. The oyster is no match for the skill of the shucker.

[]         THE LINE COOK

Pick a station, any station in a busy restaurant and you will find a person who has the confidence and moxie to handle far more sequential steps and multiple preparations than the average person might ever contemplate. A rail full of tickets, multiple menu items, degrees of doneness, testing the palate to make sure each dish is seasoned properly, timing preparations so that orders are plated and presented in the pass exactly when they are needed, and doing all of this with poetic grace is had to understand and easy to respect. A line cook is like a musician and the expeditor – the conductor. Every night the chef is allowed to watch beautiful music being made.

[]         THE GARDE MANGER

Building height and air into a salad presentation, assembling those beautifully executed cold small plates and appetizers, working on the structure and symmetry of a banquet cheese or fruit platter, handling a chainsaw and chisels to carve out a swan or eagle in flight from a 300 pound block of ice, or lining up hundreds of plates of identical cold courses for a sit down wedding requires the eye of a painter, the three dimensional focus of a sculptor, and the finesse of a concert pianist. Referring to this as “pantry” fails to give justice to the talent and passion of the garde manger – the cold chef.

[]         THE PROFESSIONAL SERVER

The craftsmanship within a restaurant doesn’t end in the kitchen – a truly professional server develops incredible grace and skill demonstrated through the presentation of the kitchen’s work. Balancing hot plates from the pass on forearms and between thumb and forefinger with the confidence and knowledge that required to not disrupt the cook’s presentation; the offering of a bottle of wine to the table host, removing the metal cap, extracting the cork without showing any effort, cleaning the bottle top with a napkin and gently pouring this magical liquid into waiting Riedl stemware; possibly saucing a plate tableside, tossing a Caesar salad in front of the guest, deboning a whole fish on a gueridon, or flambéing a crepes suzette to the applause of the dining room are all skills of a craftsperson who is dedicated to the art of technical service.

[]         AND YES – THE PROFESSIONAL DISHWASHER OR PORTER

Finally, with loads of respect, the chef will occasionally turn to watch, and maybe roll up his or her sleeves to assist, the dishwasher who is not reluctant to do what the job requires and who understands that there is a discipline and art to running the most expensive machine in the kitchen with speed, efficiency, grace, and intent. Even the dishwasher can be a source of pride and amazement in the professional kitchen.

Some may scoff at the porter’s job and fail to appreciate the skill that is required. Just watch a porter who is serious about the job as he or she dances with a mop – never failing to catch every corner and hidden line of grout in the floor, or the intent with which the porter scrubs out a trash can, washes the walls of a kitchen, polishes the stainless steel on a hood, or takes the time to appoint the details in a restroom. These are critical skills and when a person approaches them as if they were an opportunity to paint a picture, or play an intricate piece of music, then that person joins the ranks of craftsperson.

Every day I find time to appreciate the masters of their craft in the kitchen – we should all take the time to take it all in.

“When a work lifts your spirits and inspires bold and noble thoughts in you, do not look for any other standard to judge by: the work is good, the product of a master craftsman.”

– Jean de la Bruvere

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

Restaurant Consulting and Training

**Photo Chef Herve Mahe- practicing his craft

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